Coaxing Westra out from behind the lens

By Alastair Bull

First-time film-maker Luit Bieringa had plenty of challenges when making his documentary about photographer Ans Westra - not the least of which was getting her to open up.

Westra, a Dutch immigrant who over the past 45 years has been one of New Zealand's foremost documentary photographers, is a very private person. Bieringa's doco Ans Westra: Private Journeys/Public Thoughts is on TV this weekend.

He's known Westra for some time, and is curator of an exhibition of her photographs which has toured New Zealand since 2004, and has gone to the Netherlands.

"She can get very withdrawn in her own private world and is quite difficult to extract things from," Bieringa says.

"It can be a case of finding the right time to get things from her, but we had done a lot of research beforehand and I was quite familiar with her work."

Westra arrived from the Netherlands in the late 1950s in her early 20s. She shunned news photography and concentrated on a documentary style, focusing on people on the fringes at public events and in society.

Her uncompromising attitude meant she never became particularly wealthy from her work - Bieringa says it's only in the last 10 years that she's found work coming at a regular rate.

She's even been at the centre of some controversy.

Her photo essay Wash Day at the Pa, printed to run in a school journal in 1964, was so accurate in its depiction of difficult conditions for Maori in rural areas that the Maori Women's Welfare League, wanting to promote better hygiene among Maori, successfully asked for the journal to be withdrawn. Thousands of copies were destroyed, though the photos were later published as a book.

However, Westra developed a following over the years and is now regarded as one of the foremost documentarians of New Zealand society in the past 50 years.

"Her colour work is a little different from her black and white work but it's all very important. It's been influential and I think will always be relevant," Bieringa says.

The aim of the film is not only to show Westra's work but to understand what drives her, he says.

"We wanted to show Ans' personal journey through her photography," Bieringa says.

"The reason she's known is her photographs, not her as a personality."

Interview subjects for the film along with Westra included John Turner, Kara Puketapu and Hone Tuwhare, whose words provide a framing structure for the film.

Bieringa, a Wellingtonian, was grateful TVNZ and NZ On Air took a chance on him as a first-time film-maker to make the documentary.

However, he did have some very good help. His wife Jan is familiar with film, her work includes a book she co-wrote with NZ Film Archive founder Jonathan Dennis, and experienced film-maker Gaylene Preston was used as a consultant. He also benefited from the work on photography and editing of John Irwin.

Bieringa says the process was very different from anything he'd worked on before.

"There's a lot more people who work with you on a film than if you're writing a book, for example, and it takes a lot more time. I had to brush up on my interviewing skills, but the most difficult process was the editing.

"You have to edit in any form of creative work, but I've never had quite so much material as when I was cutting this to 72 minutes, and cutting it back further to 45 minutes for television was very hard." NZPA

* A shorter version of Ans Westra: Private Journeys/Public Thoughts than the one which appeared at the Auckland film festival plays on Artsville, Sunday, 10.40pm, TV One.

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